Knowledge of our Heritage is Empowering

Campers from the first Peter Mott House Underground Railroad Camp 2022
Credit: Underground Railroad campers touch the headstone of Civil War Hero John Henry Lawson at Mount Peace Cemetery in Lawnside guided by Yolanda Romero. He received the Medal of Honor for valor at the Battle of Mobile Bay. Photo credit: Renee McKenzie-Hayward
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“We can’t change our history but we must face it and learn from it.”

Jacqueline MIller Bentley repeated that theme from June 27th to July 1st to 16 fifth through seventh graders at the first Underground Railroad Camp at the Peter Mott House in Lawnside. The Lawnside Historical Society, which owns the house, has dreamed of a camp almost since its founding in 1990. The multiracial group of children bonded and created new friendships as summer campers often do.

Lawnside, New Jersey, the only African American incorporated municipality above the Mason-Dixon Line, was a haven to people of African descent since colonial times. Some residents can still trace their lineage to shrewd people who purchased their freedom, were manumitted or escaped here through the secret network of abolitionists known as the Underground Railroad. The Rev. Peter Mott was an agent with the distinction of being a free Black man, in a Black community who helped escapees from his home and with his wagon.

These stories were largely taken for granted by those who grew up in this 1.6-square mile town just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. As local demographics change, warehouses encircle and other projects loom, worry rises that important landmarks could disappear.

An 11-year-old from Haddon Heights told a reporter the Underground Railroad was glossed over at her school. “It’s important to remember the history of people who have been forgotten,” she said.

Mrs. Bentley, a retired educator and school administrator, said she hopes the camp will empower parents to help children understand the terror of slavery and the ingenuity and courage of the enslaved. The Rev. Dr. Renee McKenzie-Hayward, who helped campers sing code songs embedded in spirituals, was impressed by the thoughtful, openness of this group.Programs like the UGRR Camp, local history postcards and online presentations on our three National Register Historic Sites empower our residents to defend preserving the town and its unique place in the history of New Jersey.

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